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Little Simz is calling the shots

From Acclaim Issue 37 'Forward'

Posted by Acclaim

Acclaim Issue 37

As I begin my phone call with Little Simz I’m acutely aware of the time difference. I am probably imposing on what little down time she has. She must be tired. How could she not be? At the time of our conversation she’s in London, having just pulled off an epic festival-like event at the iconic Roundhouse Theatre. The week before she was here, in Australia, playing to sold out venues for the first leg of her international album tour. The week after she will be doing it all again across the US. She might be tired but you would never tell by her voice—calm, considered, focussed. It’s this clarity of purpose that propels her forward. “There’s nothing else that I’d want to be doing with my life at this moment in time than making music.”

There’s a bit of common ground between Little Simz and this issue’s guest editor, Ta-ku. Both are self-made, multidisciplinary creatives with a very sound understanding of their personal brand. I also distinctly remember watching Simz put radio host Peter Rosenberg onto Ta-ku when she chose to rap over one of his beats back in 2015. A lot has happened in just two years. Since then, both artists have traversed the uncertain path of building their own profiles strictly through passion projects, which is increasingly difficult in a time where the allure of major label co-signs loom over independent artists. Compromise, however, especially creative compromise, is not in Simz’s game.

She joins a growing number of fiercely talented and driven young women who are creating their own formidable lanes in an industry that is seemingly built against them. And while this may be particularly relevant in the current social climate, it would appear that Simbi Ajikawo was born into this mindset. Simz was raised in North London by her mother and despite not coming from a traditional ‘show business’ family, there was no doubt which path she would go down. “I’ve always been a performer. Whether it’s been dancing, acting, whatever it was, I was just into the performing arts. It was something that I could really nurture and take my time with.”

After penning her first song at age nine, it was evident where Simz’s strengths lay. Granted, her lyricism has matured considerably with her since then, but her commitment and work ethic has been unwavering. Since 2010, she has released a plethora of EPs and mixtapes—11, to be exact— and in the past two years has released her first two studio albums through her own label, Age: 101 Music. It would seem that ever since she caught the songwriter’s bug, she just hasn’t stopped. And even as we speak, she concedes that amid everything that is still being done in support of Wonderland, she hasn’t even really had a moment to process its success but “it does feel really, really good.”

At 23 years old, it’s easy for an outsider to look at Simz’s trajectory and declare that she has it made. Who else do you know can claim ownership to so many achievements at that age? It is impressive but it hasn’t come without struggle. In fact, Simz’s decision to start her own label and release so much music independently is probably the direct result of numerous frustrating interactions with the traditional record label infrastructure. And she’s been vocal, both in her music and on social media, about the constant roadblocks she’s faced throughout her career. “When something isn’t right, I feel like I need to confront it and let people know the struggles that I have to face to do what I want to do. I want to remain independent and do my own thing—it’s not a walk in the park.”

It is this single-mindedness that has driven the young MC to continue creating work that challenges the status quo, questions authority, and gives like-minded people something to relate to. Her latest album Stillness in Wonderland is the perfect example of the creative possibilities afforded to an artist who is not encumbered by the decision-making powers of a bunch of dudes in a boardroom somewhere. The album was written about a year ago but she says it’s as accurate a definition of her life now as it is then. Inspired by the iconic Lewis Carroll novel, its narrative and sound ebbs and flows with the personal journey of an individual who is very receptive to their environment. When you’re caught down the rabbit hole of the music industry, this can make for some pretty dramatic sonic changes. But it all makes sense and is carried by the sheer conviction in Simz’s voice, whether she’s lamenting toxic relationships or asserting her title as King of Hearts. “I been building and now look what I made / Ain’t it amazing and now niggas wanna invade / Are you ‘dey craze?”

In real life, outside of those braggadocious bars, she is modest when it comes to acknowledging her achievements. And while she understands there’s still a lot of work that’s required in order to maintain her vision, even she can’t deny that “things are definitely happening”. Her Australian tour was another reminder of just how far-reaching her influence is today. “It feels unreal but at the same time I feel like my message, my sound, is universal so it does make sense. I feel like it’s only going to expand and grow, so I’m looking forward to that.”

It’s finally starting to make people really take notice but does she think anything has improved in the industry today? “I think it’s been improving. I won’t say it’s a hundred percent there but to be honest, I’m trying not to focus on that because I realise that it’s not actively helping me to progress, you know. I do like to focus on things that matter—growing with my fans and my supporters and people that actually give a fuck and that care about me.” And there’s certainly no shortage of people who give a fuck about her. Her high-profile supporters have been well-documented ever since her 2013 mixtape Blank Canvas copped a premiere on Jay Z’s entertainment site, Life + Times, but it’s her feature artist list that really speaks volumes about Simz’s pull as a MC. Preferring to work with people she personally connects with, she can now call many of her collaborators friends—translating mutual fandom pretty easily into a real-life friendship, which has created an enviable international squad of the most talented musicians of today.

The idea of hanging out with the likes of Anderson .Paak, Syd, Bibi Bourelly, Stormzy, and Kehlani (to name a few) is cool enough but one thing that is glaringly obvious with this new crop of artists, and Simz in particular, is that they are very open and generous with their support of each other. Social media has allowed everyone to be everyone else’s hype man and this is the kind of quality engagement that has a higher value than that of any music industry executive.

The most love, however, may be reserved for those who may not be as recognisable to the average observer. Simz is quick to recognise her mother and siblings as the original “real models” in her life, with her mum being particularly instrumental in her natural confidence. “[She] has the same aura, kinda vibes to her, and I probably take from that.” She has also kept the same core crew of creative friends around her since day dot. The guys who make up Space Age may be involved in various creative projects, from music to fashion to film, but the group is built on a foundation of a long-standing friendship. I ask her if there have been any attempts by ‘outsiders’ to infiltrate Space Age and the answer is a hard no. “We’ve always kept it insular… Not in, like, a hostile way but we’re just comfortable with each other and we just kind of keep it tight.”

And maybe that’s the secret to her success and continual progress. Perhaps it’s easier to keep journeying into the unknown with each new project or endeavour when your foundation is as solid as Simz’s. She’s managed to find balance, ensuring her home and personal relationships are the stillness required to hold her down amidst the madness of this wonderland she’s created. What will the world be like on the other end of this journey? And where does she go from here? If her past travels are anything to go by, it’s best not to place any expectations on Simz. She operates on an unearthly plain, where she answers only to herself, and the end result will always supersede whatever mortal idea you had for her. Whatever the next destination is, have no doubt, Simz will always remain in complete control.

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